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Intelligent Design: A blind alley
By Taner Edis
Posted October 14, 2007
Recently, I was in the audience when Munawar Anees spoke about science and Islam at the Jefferson Center's Summer Institute. Anees, a Muslim scientist turned social critic and student of religion, argued that conflicts between science and religious doctrine were alien to Islam. Afterwards, I asked Anees if this was not a strange statement, considering that the Muslim world harbors perhaps the strongest and most successful varieties of creationism in the world. He answered that Harun Yahya -- the famous pseudonym Turkish creationists operate under -- and similar figures were aberrations, who could be ignored when discussing the Islamic attitude toward science.
I wish Anees were right -- that his idealized, liberal version of Islam was the more popular, even dominant, point of view. Yet the fact is that creationism of the Harun Yahya variety appeals to a large number of Muslims. And even the serious intellectual culture of Muslims is not friendly toward evolution. Certainly modern Darwinian evolution, which explains the common ancestry of organisms through purely natural mechanisms, seems largely rejected by devout Muslims.
I find this disturbing. Although I am not religious, I was born and raised in Turkey, and I continue to be concerned about how the Muslim world is a disaster zone for modern science. For a long time, I have observed how creationism infiltrated science education in Turkey, with a blend of traditional Islamic ideas and Protestant pseudoscience imported from the United States. More recently I have watched Harun Yahya's version of creationism emerge and become an international phenomenon. The overwhelming consensus of scientists today is that common ancestry is a plain fact, and that natural mechanisms suffice to explain this fact. And yet, public acceptance of evolution remains remarkably low. The August 11, 2006 issue of Science included a paper presenting survey results from 31 European countries plus Japan, the US, and Turkey as the only Muslim representative. Turkey was the most negative toward evolution among the 34 countries -- perhaps 25% of Turks favor evolution, while over a half reject it. Some of this must be due to the inherent difficulties of evolutionary thinking: as with most powerful scientific theories, there is much in evolution that is counterintuitive. And evaluating the vast body of evidence supporting evolution requires much specialized training. Nevertheless, it is clear that the main obstacle to the public acceptance of evolution comes from popular religion. Countries where traditional Abrahamic religious beliefs are strong, such as the United States and most Muslim lands, are also home to strong creationist movements.
Responding to creationism can be especially frustrating for scientists, as arguments over evolution often turn into religious debates, different from the weighing of evidence and explanations that is usual in science. Moreover, popular creationism is not intellectually serious. Harun Yahya and similar writers, for example, do not follow even elementary norms of scholarship. Popular creationism is full of gross misrepresentations of Darwinian evolution, such as the notion that evolutionists consider functional complexity to be the result of pure chance. Creationists repeat claims that have long been debunked, such as the claim that the fossil record lacks transitional forms. No one familiar with today's paleontological literature could agree with such a statement. Indeed, the sheer amount of bad arguments and distortions in most popular creationist writings makes many scientists think that there is little to be gained in responding. A few scientists do get involved, out of curiosity or a sense of responsibility for the public appreciation of science. A physicist, for example, might have some fun describing the mistakes in creationist allegations that the second law of thermodynamics preclude evolution. After all, it can be fascinating to explore how self-organization can take hold in a system driven away from thermodynamic equilibrium, laying the groundwork for chemical replicators and processes such as natural selection. I have done such writing myself. But in the end, this is just explaining established science, not significantly advancing knowledge. And it is not clear that even the most thorough presentation of creationist mistakes can influence committed creationists. Creationist writers display an impressive capacity for ignoring what mainstream scientists have to say.
Well, then, what about less popular but more intellectually sophisticated critiques of evolution -- especially those that advertise themselves to be grounded in science rather than theology? In the United States, the "intelligent design" movement purports to be just such a sophisticated critique of Darwinian evolution. And intelligent design also appears to have attracted attention in the Muslim world. Translations of books advocating intelligent design are easy to find in Istanbul bookstores. Local proponents of intelligent design have begun to emerge, such as Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish journalist. Indeed, Akyol has argued for intelligent design in front of American audiences as well as writing for Muslims, emphasizing how this form of opposition to evolution expresses deep intuitions about nature and a creator that are common to all Abrahamic faiths.
Now, intelligent design certainly looks more respectable than popular creationism. In the United States, intelligent design proponents include a number of academics, some who work in scientific disciplines. They avoid more blatant appeals to religion, preferring not to discuss sacred texts. Their attack on Darwinian evolution is based largely on the notion that purely natural processes cannot create information -- that genuine creativity requires intervention by intelligence, and that intelligence cannot be reduced to the "chance and necessity" of merely physical processes. Intelligent design proponents share some of the bad habits of popular creationists, such as their use of quotations out of context, and the way they misrepresent the current state of science to portray evolution as a theory in crisis. Still, there seems to be more intellectual substance to intelligent design, beyond religious populism. It can even involve a limited acceptance of evolution -- acknowledging common descent while insisting that creative novelty is due to an intelligent agent responsible for new information.
If this is so, perhaps I should be less negative about the prospect of intelligent design ideas influencing the Muslim world. After all, most devout Muslims seem unlikely to be reconciled with full-blown, naturalistic evolution in the Darwinian mold. Even the elite intellectual culture among Muslims tends toward a view where it looks obvious that complexity in nature is due to divine design. Those Muslims who say they favor evolution typically accept common descent but reject the sufficiency of Darwinian mechanisms -- they consider evolution to proceed under direct divine supervision. Such notions of guided evolution fit very well with intelligent design ideas. If Muslims are going to be cool toward evolution, perhaps intelligent design can at least nudge them closer to accepting ideas such as common descent. Nevertheless, I cannot help but think that intelligent design can only adversely affect the already weak state of science in Muslim lands.
I have been criticizing intelligent design creationism for many years now. My original interest was driven mainly by curiosity -- following creationism for a long time, I had become somewhat bored by the lack of development in creationist arguments. But in the late 1990s, the intelligent design movement matured and claimed a new type of criticism of evolution. As a physicist, I was especially interested in the arguments of leading intelligent design theorists such as William Dembski. These arguments did not directly address biology but concentrated on concepts of information, complexity, and intelligence. As it happens, these closely relate to my particular background and interests. So I started looking at the information-based arguments for intelligent design. I fully expected that they would be flawed, but at least they were interesting. I thought I could learn something by finding out exactly how they went wrong. And as with any critical enterprise, there was also a chance that as I got deeper into intelligent design arguments, I would discover that my initial expectations were wrong, and that I would be persuaded by intelligent design.
I soon found a number of fatal flaws in the information-based argument for intelligent design. Moreover, I started communicating with a number of like-minded scientists who had become interested in intelligent design from a critical perspective, and who thought it was intellectually worthwhile to put together a scientific assessment of this newest form of creationism. This eventually led to Why Intelligent Design Fails, a book I co-edited with Matt Young, that brings together detailed scientific criticisms of intelligent design based on current biology, physics, computer science, mathematics, and even forensic science. Our overall conclusion was not only that intelligent design was a failure, but that it fails spectacularly. We see no prospect of anything of scientific value emerging from the intelligent design enterprise.
In the three years since our book has been out, developments have only strengthened our negative assessment. Intelligent design theorists have not responded to our arguments. Indeed, they seem to ignore or superficially dismiss not just our criticisms but scientific challenges in general -- they prefer to address philosophical and theological arguments and to create the impression that opposition to intelligent design is driven by anti-religious ideologies. Leading intelligent design proponents such as William Dembski have been reduced to bizarrely triumphal statements, such as declaring that the intellectual battle against "Darwinism" has been won, since it is intuitively obvious to any observer that the biochemical machinery in the cell must be a product of a kind of engineering design. The intelligent design movement as a whole is looking increasingly like old-fashioned popular creationism -- focused on legal and political battles, paranoid about persecution by mainstream science, dismissive of how arguments are reviewed within the scientific community, and celebrating mindless pop-culture attacks on evolution by right-wing political commentators.
So personally, I do not think that there is much more of scientific interest left in intelligent design claims. Intelligent design will remain of interest to those of us who think about the relationship between science and religion. But far from a serious alternative to evolution, intelligent design is a scientific blind alley. It raises some interesting questions, but these have already been answered. In the scientific realm, Darwinian evolution is as secure as ever.
In the wider public realm, the picture looks different. As a social and political movement, intelligent design is alive and well. Intelligent design will continue to be a religiously attractive position; as far as I can tell, intelligent design often makes good sense from a religious perspective. And unfortunately, my contribution to the public debate over creation and evolution has to be somewhat unsatisfactory. I am not a believer -- I have no business telling religious people how they should understand the Quran or the Bible, or how they ought to imagine their God acting in the world. I have to be content with pointing out that the scientific community overwhelmingly supports evolution, and that we hold this position based on careful evaluation of evidence and arguments, including the best arguments put forth by anti-evolutionary thinkers. I have to claim that we -- scientists -- have the appropriate expertise, and that we are the proper authorities to consult about the history of life on Earth. But this is an appeal to authority. Moreover, it is an appeal to the authority of an elite, at a time when populist religious currents are very strong in both the United States and among Muslims. But I see little alternative. Barring acquiring enough background knowledge to consult scientific sources, the only way for someone to accept evolution is to be impressed with modern science and give a lot of weight to scientific consensus.
That being said, maybe I can also make a pragmatic point. Where natural science is concerned, the Muslim world really is a disaster area. Many Muslims are worried about this state of affairs, regardless of whether they are more observant or more secular in outlook -- they correctly perceive that Western accomplishment in science and technology is a key to unwelcome Western military and economic domination of Muslim lands. If the Muslim world is to improve its scientific prospects, can Muslims afford to indulge in embarrassments like the popular creationism of Harun Yahya? Is it really a good idea to go down a scientific blind alley such as intelligent design? I am inclined to think not. At the least, I would like to see more liberal Muslim options, represented by scientists such as Munawar Anees, become more prominent. Otherwise, I fear the future of science among Muslims will be as dark as the present.
Postscript: Reply to Mustafa Akyol
Taner Edis is associate professor of physics at Truman State University, Kirksville, MO. His latest book is An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam (Prometheus Books, 2007). Thanks are due Glenn Branch, Gert Korthof, and Matt Young for helpful comments on this article.